Saturday, June 30, 2007

Public pension funds take a risky gamble

Bear Stearns is hawking the riskiest portions of collateralized debt obligations to public pension funds. At a sales presentation of the bank's CDOs to 50 public pension fund managers in Las Vegas, Jean Fleischhacker, Bear Stearns senior managing director, tells fund managers they can get a 20% annual return from the bottom [i.e., riskiest] level of a CDO. Many pension funds, facing growing numbers of retirees, are still reeling from investments that went sour after technology stocks peaked in March 2000. Fund managers buy equity tranches, which are also called first loss portions, even though those investments are never given a credit rating by Fitch, Moody's or Standard & Poor's.

Seven percent of all the equity tranches sold in the U.S. in the past decade were purchased by pension funds. Public pension funds have bought more than $500 million in CDO equity tranches in the past five years, The California Public Employees' Retirement System, the nation's largest public pension fund, has invested $140 million in such unrated CDO portions. Citigroup sold the tranches to Calpers. The New Mexico State Investment Council, which funds education and government services for children, has $222.5 million invested in equity tranches. The council decided in April to buy an additional $300 million of them. The General Retirement System of Detroit holds three equity tranches it bought for $38.8 million. The Teachers Retirement System of Texas owns $62.8 million of them. The Missouri State Employees' Retirement System owns a $25 million equity tranche.

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